Marian is prepared to believe the captain a tyrant. The truth is far more complicated. Gideon is a kind yet solitary man who sees the navy as his only sanctuary. Can Marian's unwavering faith, and the children's Christmas cheer, convince him he's found safe harbor at last?
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Nottinghamshire, England 1814
"He' s coming, Miss Murray!" A breathless housemaid burst into the nursery without even a knock of warning.
The book Marian Murray had been reading to her two young pupils slid from her slack fingers and down her skirts to land on the carpet with a soft thud. A tingling chill crept down her back that had nothing to do with the gray drizzle outside. The moment she'd been dreading for weeks had arrived at last. .in spite of her prayers.
A new prayer formed in her thoughts now, as she strove to compose herself for the children's sake. She hoped it would do better at gaining divine attention. Please, Lord, don't let him be as bad as I fear and don't let him send the girls away!
Unaware of her governess's distress, Dolly Radcliffe leapt up, her plump young features alight with excitement. "Who's coming, Martha? Are we to have company?"
The housemaid shook her head. "Not company, miss. It's the new masterCaptain Radcliffe. Mr. Culpepper sent me to fetch ye so we can give him a proper welcome to Knightley Park."
"Tell Mr. Culpepper the girls and I will be down directly," Marian replied in a Scottish burr that all her years in England had done little to soften.
Forcing her limbs to cooperate, she rose from the settee and scooped up the fallen book, smoothing its wrinkled pages.
"New master?" Dolly's small nose wrinkled. "I thought Mr. Culpepper was master of the house now."
"Don't be silly." Cissy Radcliffe rolled her wide blue-gray eyes at her younger sister's ignorance. "Mr. Culpepper is only a servant. Knightley Park belongs to Captain Radcliffe now by en en Oh, what's that word again, Miss Marian?"
"Entail, dear." Marian plumped the bow of Cissy's blue satin sash, wishing she had time to control Dolly's baby-fine fair hair with a liberal application of sugar water. "Come along now, we don't want to keep the captain waiting."
Likely the new master would insist on the sort of strict order and discipline he'd kept aboard his ship. It would not do for her and the girls to make a bad impression by being tardy.
"What is entail?" asked Dolly, as Marian took both girls by the hands and led them out into the east wing hallway.
Marian stifled an impatient sigh. Ordinarily, she encouraged the children's endless questions, but at the moment she did not feel equal to explaining the legalities of inheritance to a curious six-year-old.
Cissy had no such qualms. "It's when an estate must pass to the nearest male relative. If I were a boy, I would be master of Knightley Park now. Or if little Henry had lived, he would be. But since there's only us, and we're girls, the estate belongs to Papa's cousin, Captain Radcliffe."
After a brief pause to digest the information, Dolly had another question. "Do you suppose the captain will look like Papa, since they're cousins?"
"Were cousins," Cissy corrected her sister. The child's slender fingers felt like ice as she clung to Marian's hand.
Dolly's forehead puckered. "Do people stop being relations after they go to heaven? That doesn't seem right."
"You'll find out soon enough whether Captain Radcliffe bears any family resemblance," said Marian as they reached the bottom of the great winding staircase and joined a stream of servants pouring out the front door.
Exchanging furtive whispers, the maids smoothed down their aprons, and the footmen straightened their neck linen. They seemed curious and apprehensive about the arrival of their new master. Marian shared their qualms.
Outside, under the pillared portico, Knightley Park's aging butler struggled to marshal his staff into decent order to greet Captain Radcliffe. Shaken by the sudden death of Cissy and Dolly's father, Culpepper had let household discipline slip recently. Now he was paying the price, poor fellow.
Marian had too many worries of her own to spare him more than a passing flicker of sympathy.
"This way, girls." She tugged them along behind the shifting line of servants to stand at the far end of the colonnade, a little apart from the others.
By rights, they probably should have taken a place up beside Mr. Culpepper and Mrs. Wheaton, the cook. Cissy and Dolly were the ladies of the house, in a way. At least, they had been until today. What they would be from now on, and where they would go, depended upon the man presently driving up the long, elm-lined lane toward them. Marian wanted to delay that meeting for as long as possible.
When the carriage came to a halt in front of the house, she could not stifle a shiver.
Dolly must have felt it for she edged closer. "Are you cold, Miss Marian?"
"A little," Marian whispered back, conscious of a breathless silence that had gripped the other servants. "Drizzle like this can make midsummer seem cool, let alone October. Now, remember, bright smiles and graceful curtsies to welcome the captain."
The carriage door swung open, and a tall, rangy figure emerged, clad in black from head to toe, relieved only by a glimpse of stark white shirt cuffs and neck linen. Marian felt a mild pang of disappointment that Captain Radcliffe had not worn his naval uniform. But, of course, he wouldn't, under the circumstances. From rumors in the newspapers, Marian had gleaned that the captain was on leave from his command under a cloud of suspicion.
As Captain Radcliffe removed his hat, a breath of wind stirred his brown hair strewn with threads of gold. Tucking the hat under his arm, he strode slowly past the line of servants while Mr. Culpepper introduced each one. The movement of their bows and curtsies rippled down the line like an ominous wave rolling toward Marian and her young charges. Resisting an urge to draw the girls into a protective embrace, she took a step backward so they would have room to make their curtsies.
At that moment, Captain Radcliffe loomed in front of them, looking even taller than he had from a distance. His face was too long and angular to be called handsome. But it was quite striking, with a jutting nose, firm mouth and deep set, gray eyes beneath sharply arched brows.
Those brows slanted together at a fierce angle as he stared at Cissy and Dolly with a look of the most intense severity Marian had ever seen. Beneath his relentless scrutiny, Cissy lost her nerve. Her curtsy wobbled, and her squeaks of greeting sounded more terrified than welcoming. Dolly forgot to curtsy at all but stared boldly up at the captain.
Mr. Culpepper seemed not to notice as he continued his introductions. "Sir, these are the daughters of your late cousin, Miss Celia Radcliffe and Miss Dorothy. Behind them is their governess, Miss Murray."
A clammy knot of dread bunched in the pit of Marian's stomach as she waited for Captain Radcliffe to speak. It was the same sensation that always gripped her between a dangerous flash of lightning and the alarming crack of thunder that followed.
"Children?" His voice did sound like the rolling rumble of distant thunder, or the pounding of the sea upon a lonely, rock strewn coast. "No one said anything about children."
The man was every bit as bad as she'd feared, if not worse. Besides all the other feelings roiling inside her, Marian felt a twinge of disappointment at the thought of another prayer unanswered. Once again, it appeared she would have to fight her own battles in defense of those she cared for. Some tiny part of her even stirred at the prospectperhaps the blood of her warlike ancestors.
Or was it something about the captain's presence that stirred her? Surely not!
When Cissy backed away from her formidable cousin, Marian wrapped a reassuring arm around her shoulders and reached out to tug Dolly back, as well. "Perhaps we can discuss the girls and their situation this evening after I've put them to bed?"
The captain seemed to take notice of her for the first time, looking her over carefully as if to assess the strength of an adversary. His scrutiny ignited a blistering blush in Marian's cheeks. For an instant, the children and all the other servants seemed to melt away, leaving her all alone with Captain Radcliffe.
Perhaps the captain felt it, too, for he gave his head a brisk shake, collecting himself from a moment of abstraction. "Very well. Report to the bridge at eight bells of the last dog watch. That is the Chinese drawing room at eight o'clock."
"Yes, sir." Marian dropped a curtsy, wondering if he expected her to salute. "Now I will take the children back indoors before they catch a chill with your permission, of course."
"By all means, attend to your duties." The captain looked as if he could hardly wait for Cissy and Dolly to be out of his sight.
Marian was only too eager to obey his curt order.
"Come along, girls." She shepherded them into the house, resisting the perverse urge to glance back at him.
Neither of the children spoke until they were halfway up the broad spiral staircase.
"The captain doesn't look much like Papa." Dolly sounded disappointed.
"He isn't anything like Papa!" Cissy muttered fiercely.
"I don't think he likes us very much." Dolly sighed.
"I'm certain the captain doesn't dislike you, dear." Marian strove to convince herself as much as the children. "He was surprised to find you here, that's all."
As they slipped back into the comforting familiarity of the nursery, Dolly's grip tightened with such sudden force that it made Marian wince. "The captain won't send us away, will he?"
"Of course not!" Marian stooped to gather her beloved young pupils into a comforting embrace.
They had been through so much in the two short years since she'd come to be their governessfirst losing their mother and infant brother, then their father. She had done all she could to make them feel secure and loved, to protect them from the kind of harsh childhood she'd endured.
To herself she vowed, That man won't send you away if there is anything I can do to prevent it!
As he waited for the mantel clock to chime eight, Gideon Radcliffe paced the rounded bay end of the Chinese drawing room, peering out each of its tall, slender windows in turn.
Even in the misty dusk, they afforded a fine view down a gently sloping knoll to the lake, which wrapped around a small, green island. Gideon had pleasant memories of boating on that lake from long-ago visits to Knightley Park when his grandfather was master. At the time, he'd enjoyed an even better view from the room directly above this onethe nursery.
That thought reminded him of his cousin's children. He would rather have been ambushed by the combined French and Spanish fleets than by those two small girls. They could not have been more alien to his experience if they'd been a pair of mermaids. He had no idea what they might need, except to sense that he was entirely unequipped to provide it.
More than ever he felt the urgent necessity to restore his reputation, regain his command and get back to sea. He was confident he possessed the skill, experience and temperament to serve his country well in that capacity. After all these years of service, it was the only life he knew. Losing it would be worse than losing a limbit would be like losing his very identity.
"I beg your pardon, sir." The soft lilt of a woman's voice intruded upon Gideon's most private thoughts. "You told me to report here at eight. Did you not hear me knock?"
"I didn't." Gideon withdrew into himself, like a sea creature retreating into the shelter of its tough, rigid shell. "But do come in. I wanted to talk to you about the children."
"As did I, sir." She approached with deliberate steps, halting some distance away, behind an ornate armchair.
During their first meeting, Gideon had been so taken aback by the sight of his young cousins that he'd paid little heed to their governess, beyond her hostile glare. No doubt she had read all the scurrilous gossip about him in the papers and judged him guilty of the false accusations against him. So much for his hope of finding a sanctuary at Knightley Park to escape public condemnation!
Now he forced himself to take stock of his potential adversary. Marian Murray was small and slender, her dark brown hair pinned back with strict severity. Only a single wisp had escaped to curl in a softening tendril over her left temple. With high cheekbones and a fresh complexion, her face might have been quite pleasant to look at if she ventured to smile occasionally. At the moment, her brown eyes were narrowed and her full lips compressed in an expression of barely concealed hostility, if not outright contempt.
Though Gideon told himself her opinion was not of the slightest consequence, he could not deny the sting. "Yes. Well about the children. I hope the entail of the estate did not leave them unprovided for."
If that were the case, he would take responsibility for their maintenance. It might ease the unreasonable guilt he felt for displacing them from their home.
"No, sir." The governess seemed surprised by his question, as if she had not expected him to care. "The girls each have a comfortable little fortune from their mother."
"I am relieved to hear it." Gideon nodded his approval. "Pray who is their guardian and why have they been left alone here?"
Surely he would have been informed if Cousin Daniel had named him in that capacity. And surely Daniel would have known better than to entrust his young daughters to the care of a distant relation who was apt to be away at sea for years on end.
"The girls have not been alone," Miss Murray corrected him. "They have had an entire household to care for them. Their mother's younger sister, Lady Villiers, is their godmother. She is to be their guardian."
"Capital!" Tension released its grip on his clenched muscles so swiftly Gideon feared he might crumple to the floor. "I mean to say how fortunate for the children. Will Lady Villiers be coming to fetch them soon or should they be sent to her?"
The look on Miss Murray's face grew even grimmer. A passing thought pricked Gideon's conscience. Was she too strict a person to have charge of two sensitive children? Perhaps he should suggest Lady Villiers hire a more amiable governess for his young cousins.